Ron Rosenbaum

Takeaways, Part 2: Masculine/Feminine

First let me make clear I kind of hate the word “takeaway”, as in “what’s the takeaway here”? It reeks of power-point biz-buzz-speak. And yet….there’s something seductive about the word, the concept, something that cuts to the chase. Separates what you thought knew before an experience from what additional truth, if not the whole truth, you know afterward. So I’m giving in to it, I’m using it as shorthand for these reports from my encounter with life outside my apartment.

This one in particular was one of the most thrilling encounters in my intellectual life: a “BAM Dialogue” (BAM being New York’s celebrated Brooklyn Academy of Music) with Edward Hall the director of what will be remembered as one of this era’s great innovative Shakespearean production companies, “The Propeller Theatre”.

BAM is currently running two Propeller productions, Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew and, as they have in the past, they were offering enthusiasts a chance to hear the director talk about his vision. (There is a funny emblematic episode in my book, %%AMAZON=0375503390 The Shakespeare Wars%%, that takes place during a BAM Dialogue with Peter Brook, during which, as an audience member, I disrupted the proceedings. Very embarrasing. It was particularly satisfying thus to be asked to be a Dialogue principle).

Particularly with Edward Hall. He is, in addition to being known for his own stunningly original work, known as well as the son of Sir Peter Hall, the profoundly influential co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company. I devote a chapter in my book to Sir Peter’s heated views about the correct and incorrect way to pronounce the poetic rhythms of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter line. And he is, by the way, the brother of Rebecca Hall whose brilliant work as Rosalind, the heroine of As You Like It transformed my vision of that play.

I’m not going to go into the many matters we covered in the course of our 45 minute dialogue (with the participation of a well-versed audience), nor our pre- Dialogue dialogue. Rather I’m just going to focus on one thing Edward Hall said that still has me thinking about it. Something about masculinity and femininity.

The Propeller Theater is known for it’s adherence to the discipline of all-male casts. I say discipline because it’s an esthetic strategy unrelated to gender preference on the part of the director of the company. I say discipline because it’s not merely a throwback to an “originalist” version of Shakespeare, whose female roles were originally acted–because of religious based, culturally normative prudishness–by young boys with high or unbroken voices.

What makes Propeller different, what makes a Propeller production an intellectually challenging, rather than merely sexually different, in an antiquarian way, is that it doesn’t cast young boys but grown men in the women’s parts.

I was initially skeptical of this but when I saw Propeller’s hilarious Midsummer Night’s Dream a couple of years ago. I was completely won over. I have rarely laughed so hard in my life as I did in the 4th act when the mixed and mismatched couples wake up to Puck’s mischief and some bald unshaven middle aged guy played youthful ingenue Hermia’s outrage at the “plot” against her.

But it was more than funny it was intellectually challenging. While almost all Shakespeare’s plays raise questions about masculinity and femininity–how much of each quality is what you might call “hard wired” in the sociobiological-based irreconcilable differences–and how much is gender an act, a performance, a role one can inhabit or choose to step outside.

No play of Shakespeare asks this question with such dizzying comic ingenuity than Twelfth Night in which the heroine, Viola was, in Shakespeare’s time, a young boy imitating a woman imitating a young man. Now Propeller had a grown man imitating a young woman imitating a young man, with echoes of the original boy acting the woman that Shakespeare wrote for never absent either.

The day before the BAM dialogue I saw Propeller’s Twelfth Night and it was dazzling in raising the level of questions about sex and love to a dizzying new level.

I wish I could post the transcript of the Dialogue. But one “takeaway” that’s stayed with me is this. I asked Edward Hall if doing Shakespeare this way had affected his notion of Shakespeare and gender, his sense of Shakespeare’s sense of masculinity and femininity.

He didn’t offer any abstract answer. What he said was that in his work with the men paying both men and women in his productions he didn’t tell them to play women as more feminine or men as more masculine. In fact don’t focus on that . at all. First focus on the character. Play the character not the gender.

Does character precede gender? Are there irreducibly gender-related character aspects that precede characer as a whole? (no pun intendeded). How much of our bad character, and our better nature is related to, or in defiance of gender?

You didn’t expect me to have any answers to these questions did you? Nonetheless the questioning was the takeaway for me.